I’ve been playing a lot of combat focused action games these past few weeks, and I’ve been craving something that really gets you in the feels, so I turned to a darkness, a deep force that no man can penetrate, the depths of which few have managed to come back from with their insanity intact: the backlog of my Steam library. It was then I saw Firewatch, and I was like ‘oh yeah that game happened.’ I vaguely recalled it being a very pretty forest game with funny dialogue but then I dropped it like a sack of anvils, though I couldn’t remember why exactly.
Then I played it, all the way through in one intense green and white tea fueled (yes I am on a cleanse thanks for asking) afternoon.
Soooooo…. I think I’m in the minority on this one. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy parts of it, but I am certain that outside of free roam, I will never pick this game up again. Which is sad, because I wanted to like it, but you’ll see why when I get to everything.
Before I continue I’m just going to be lazy and say straight up that I’m spoiling this so if you really want to give it a shot but want some feedback here it goes: Overall it’s fine with decent character moments, funny lines, but a crappy mystery element. It’s not worth $20 dollars since it’s about five hours long, but I’d say $10 to play it through and $15 if you want to just hike around it afterwards. There ya go.
You are Henry a bearded, Colorado bred, IPA drinking extraordinaire. You pick up a Firewatch job in order to escape from the crushing emotional reality of a dementia riddled wife, and soon find yourself having what amounts to walkie talkie sex with your supervisor Delilah, as a generic mystery audiobook plays faintly in the background.
Okay in fairness, it is better than I described above. If there’s one strong suite in the story department, it’s the character to character dialogue. Henry is dry and sarcastic, while Delilah is witty and clever, and the two VA’s have decent chemistry together. It is just entertaining to walk around and have Henry and Delilah joke about a pair of teenage girl panties left on a tree (purely for character development of course), or have Delilah tease him about..
You know what?
As i’m writing this, I realized I can’t remember much of the dialogue, at least the comedy bits. I remember it was vaguely funny, but nothing actually stuck out to me.
What did stick out though, was the character-building stuff. Henry turned out to be more relatable than I realized, and as time went on he became my favorite character. His main drive is his guilt riddled decision to leave his wife in a 24 hour care for her early onset dementia. As someone who had a grandparent go through that, even as a kid I could tell just how stressful that is. If you’ve experienced that before then you’ll probably connect emotionally with him. We’ll get to Delilah later, but Henry is the definite high point.
So the story itself starts out decently strong, you go through a series of choice A or choice B story scenarios, very simplistic story beats that shape your relationship with your wife Julia. Then you meet Delilah, you two banter and then go to investigate teenage girls shooting off fireworks in the middle of fire season.
Then things begin to derail..
Firewatch introduces a mystery element to it, or should I say several mysteries pretending to all be linked, in the span of roughly ten seconds apart from each other, then confusedly tries to work through them one at a time. I should add this game not long, about five hours, and it introduces these elements an hour and a half in. So it ends up feeling like you’ve done an 8 ball of cocaine and put on several Scooby Doo movies on several different TVs and tried to analyze it all while occasionally getting REI travel brochures thrown at your head.
It’s just exhausting and tiring to even think about, and I keep feeling like missed huge pieces of plot because I was just trying to analyze what the hell was going on. Because it’s so confusing I’m just going to list out all the mysteries in one fell swoop, starting at the most important and working my way down.
1. Someone’s stalking you and Delilah, as they break into your tower and take down notes on what you and her are talking about through the walkie talkies, mentioning such things as relationship status and personal fears, and you, Henry, get knocked unconscious at one point when you find a strange walkie talkie on the ground.
2. There’s the mystery of Ned and Brian Goodwin, a father and son respectively, who were stationed at Henry’s station but disappeared one day and were never seen since.
3. There’s a weird government camp with surveillance equipment by them, and you don’t know what they’re doing exactly.
4. The two teenage girls I mentioned earlier are reported missing after cutting your phone line (long story) and you find their tent literally torn up, as if a bear went through it. Later Delilah falsifies a report on them leading to possible legal trouble for you both.
5. There are two guys, Ron and Dave. Dave is gay, and wants Ron inside him. That’s it.
So as you can imagine, throwing all this in a third of the way through your remarkably short indie game gets a tad bit messy. What’s worse is that there’s only one mystery that the game doesn’t jettison like deadweight on a sinking ship and attempts to find a resolution to: the Ron and Dave plotline.
Oh wait i’m sorry I meant the Ned and Brian Goodwin plotline. Which is strange because I had wayyy more investment in the two teenage girls plotline, as you had conflict with them, yelled at each other, then you stumbled upon their destroyed campsite, and took pictures of the damage etc. So that had emotional stakes to it, whereas the Ned and Brian plotline had barely any, other than Delilah knew them for a few months. The Goodwin storyline is tied up, with Ned taping a cassette to a climbing rope, and him expressing his grief over his son’s death, which is so incredibly obvious, and generic that I can’t believe they actually did it.
The girls plotline is an absolute joke, and literally ends with Delilah saying “oh yeah they found them drunkenly stealing a tractor,” and never mention it again, the whole point of the false report is never brought to any sort of light. It was an absolute waste of crucial time in an extremely short game,
The surveillance camp is just not worth talking about, it’s some sort of wildlife study that, again, takes up valuable screen time.
So here’s my biggest issue with the story, and I’m in the minority again: I hate Delilah, as a person anyways. She comes across as a cowardly, despicable human being, who has no remorse for those around her. She abandons her boyfriend after his brother died, because she didn’t want to deal with the feelings, and abandons Henry after he discovers a child’s body because she felt guilty over it, when he probably wanted to talk out the trauma with a friend. A despicable horrible person right down to her core. She also proved herself to be a pathological liar who may or may not have been collaborating with Ned the whole time, though I don’t have time to get into that here. If you’re interested in the Ned and Delilah conspiracy here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-kJek00O0Y&ab_channel=PushingUpRoses
Firewatch’s decent (at first) characters are waylaid by poor story planning, pacing, and mystery elements that cripple the story in an inoperable way.
It’s a walking sim, right down to its core. There are elements that give it more teeth than other walking sims though. You can pick up and examine objects, which can add flavor text on stuff like books and shampoo bottles, giving depth to the world. You can also grab equipment like a flashlight, axes , and rope that allows you to explore more areas than before. Overall pretty decent for a walking sim, though I wish there was more to it. It’s a shame we never got any actual “firewatch” stuff like using the Osborne Fire Finder introduced in the game. One thing that is really good is the orienteering aspect, where you use a map and compass to organically navigate the park, which is pretty fun in its own right. It is very satisfying to figure out a path on your own rather than just take the easy way to an objective. Other than that there’s not much to it, as it is still a walking sim.
The game looks gorgeous, with a lot of high contrasting colors, and dense, well planned level design. The game looks good but never sacrifices design for not screwing the player around, as everything is clearly laid out and a pleasure to walk around. It goes from forests, to canyons and ravines, to caves pretty well, and it got to the point I was able to figure out where I needed to go without pulling up a map, which is a hallmark of good design, especially in open world games. As the game has a free roam mode after you beat the main story, I would recommend this game highly to those seeking a mindfulness meditation exercise, as it’s perfect for that. The only real issue I have with it is the look of the water, which is ugly and makes the water areas look murky and kinda gross. A personal gripe I have is the weak flashlight, which is a personal pet peeve of mine but not really an issue.
The audio is nice, and isn’t overbearing with its music, instead relying on ambient sounds and such. It has a great art direction, and an 80’s style to it that never got old. Sadly, that doesn’t make up for the story, and failed characters.
It pains me to say that Firewatch is a letdown, from the tepid mystery element, to the unlikable/ underdeveloped supporting cast leads it to me never wanting to play it again except maybe for the free roam mode.